What it takes to relocate a town facing sea level rise


The Quinault Indian Nation, located about 150 miles west of Seattle, has experienced severe flooding because of sea-level rise over the past few years. And it’s only going to get worse, as the sea level along the Washington coast is likely to rise between 2 feet and 3 feet by the end of the century, according to the Washington Costal Resilience Project, funded primarily by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

“I’ve never seen this type of flooding in my lifetime,” said Lia Frenchman, whose street has flooded twice in the past few years. “So when it does flood, unfortunately, my end of the street has a large dip in the road and the water will stay for up to a week at a time. And so I’m basically either trapped or not able to come home.”

Now the Quinault Nation has a plan to relocate the entire town of Taholah, where Frenchman lives, to an area a mile uphill on tribal land. A smaller town north of Taholah, called Queets, is planning to relocate as well.

Quinault is one of three Native American communities to receive a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior for climate-related relocation efforts.

“We haven’t really ever done this before as a country, relocating entire communities in response to climate change. And so we’ve got a lot to learn ourselves about how to coordinate this work across a number of federal agencies,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland at the Department of the Interior.

But that $25 million is just the tip of the iceberg. Ryan Hendricks, who is overseeing the construction of Quinault’s upper village, estimates that it will cost about $450 million to build out all the necessary infrastructure in the new town, where he hopes all community members will eventually live. But he can’t force folks to relocate, and many questions remain about how tribal members are going to afford new homes.

“If I want to move, I’m assuming that I’m going to be responsible for a whole new house payment and a whole new home,” Frenchman said. “And I don’t really know how I’m supposed to do that.”

The need is measured in billions of dollars

Communities throughout the U.S. face myriad climate-related dangers, from increased extreme weather events to sea-level rise. One study found that by 2050 nearly 650,000 parcels of land will fall below the tide line, evaporating over $108 billion from the U.S. property market. 

Marginalized communities such as Native American tribes are often hit particularly hard, though, as climate change threatens lands that are key to tribal identity and livelihood. Such is the case with the Quinault, whose culture revolves around their proximity to the Quinault River and the Pacific Ocean.

“The need across Indian country is measured in the billions because we see a lot of tribal communities really facing challenges from flooding, coastal erosion, wildfire, drought,” Newland said. So far, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have earmarked over $460 million in funding to help tribes respond to the threat of climate change.

The Quinault Nation has discussed the possibility of relocation for nearly a decade, since the ocean first breached the community’s seawall in 2014, causing extensive water damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped repair and reinforce the seawall, but massive flooding inundated the village again at the beginning of 2021 and 2022.

Waves caused by exceptionally high tides crash near homes on First Avenue in Taholah, Washington, in January 2022, leading to severe flooding.

Larry Workman

Frenchman lives on First Avenue, the street closest to the ocean. When those floods started happening every year, it was kind of like, okay, this street really is done. First Avenue is literally in the ocean at this point.”

Kaylah Mail lives right next to the river, in the same house where her grandparents once lived. “I feel like the river gets higher than it used to, like it comes up straight to the bank and it’s kind of eroding the bank alongside here.”

In 2017, Quinault adopted its master plan for relocation. This involves moving just a mile away, up an adjacent hill that sits 120 feet above sea level, well outside the tsunami and flood hazard zone, but still close enough to the river that fishing and canoeing can continue to play an integral role in tribal life.

Now, the first phase of construction in the upper village is nearly complete. The land where the new homes will be built has been cleared, and construction crews were busy when we visited in June.

“Right now, we see them installing the last of the sewer line and the water line. The majority of our phase three power has all been installed. All of our fiber optics have all been installed,” said Hendricks. He hopes that within a decade about 75% of the new homes will be built and that all government services will be relocated.

The current construction work was paid for with the Quinault Nation’s existing funds — including $8 million from the 2021 Covid stimulus package and $500,000 from the Indian Health Service. Now, the tribe is looking into how best to allocate the $25 million grant from the Department of the Interior as well as approximately $5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

The Quinault Nation also recently qualified for an additional $50 million state-provided seismic safety grant that will help them rebuild their K-12 school in the upper village.

“The only thing that I’m going to miss is the view of the river,” said Mail. “But other than that, you know, I’m up the hill for work, and pretty soon the school is going to be up there. So hopefully my youngest kid will probably be able to go to the new school whenever that’s built.”

‘Ain’t going to hand people houses for free’

Even if construction in the upper village continues apace, there’s still the open question of how Quinault community members will pay for the move.

I have a good job. But I don’t know that I have a good enough job that I could afford, you know, a brand new home like that,” said Frenchman. “But at the same time, my job as a parent is to make sure that my kids are in the safest place as possible. And I think it’s just very apparent and very obvious that our street is no longer that safe.”

Lia Frenchman lives on First Avenue, the street closest to the ocean, which has seen severe flooding in recent years. Frenchman is hoping to relocate to the upper village, but doesn’t know how she’ll be able to afford a new home.

Katie Brigham

The homeownership model in Taholah is different than in most of the U.S., in that folks like Lia and Kaylah own their physical home, but not the land that it sits on, which they lease from Quinault’s government. This unusual situation influences what types of buyouts and relocation funding homeowners might be eligible for.

“I do still have the option of the home loan myself, but it still is pretty scary when I think about it,” Frenchman said. “I just don’t know if I want to take on that big of an expenditure when my home is already paid for.”

And we know we ain’t going to hand people houses for free,” said Guy Capoeman, president of the Quinault Indian Nation. “There has to be some sort of play on how that happens, whether we write off the cost of what their current house is appraised at, and then they would only pay the remainder of what is left, or what.”

Capoeman said the tribe is looking into how buyouts and buybacks of homes in the lower village might work, as well as what funding sources — federal, state and private — could be available to help.

In addition to its funding for the Quinault Indian Nation, the Department of the Interior made two additional $25 million relocation grants, to the Newtok Village and Native Village of Napakiak, both in Alaska. Together, these three grants are intended to serve as demonstration projects for future climate resilience efforts, providing the federal government with a blueprint for best practices.

The Quinault hope that their story will not only provide the federal government with important learnings, but also help demonstrate the dangers the world faces from climate change, as well as the importance of place itself.

“So, you know, we have a very old tie to this place,” Capoeman said. “Quinault ain’t going to leave here anytime soon. We might go up on the hill, but we’re not going to leave our land anytime soon.”

Watch the video to learn more about the Quinault Indian Nation’s relocation efforts.

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